The U.S. Treasury Department's designation last week of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) as a terrorist supporter is only the latest ratcheting up of pressure against Tehran, and it seems like background noise compared with all the talk of oil boycotts and military strikes. But the designation also highlights one of the most important -- and one of the most mysterious -- partnerships of our time: Iran's relationship with al Qaeda.
It is easy to caricature Tehran's ties to Ayman al-Zawahiri's organization. Believers in the relationship point out that they are natural friends because both endorse an extreme anti-U.S. agenda and seek to spread radical Islam. Skeptics contend that Iran's Shiite regime is anathema for Sunni jihadists, making cooperation prohibitive. Both sides have a point: Shared enemies drive Iran and al Qaeda together, but mutual suspicion keeps the partnership tactical and gives both sides reasons to play it down.
Unclassified data on Iran's relationship with al Qaeda are scarce, but enough can be gleaned or inferred from open-source material to get a sense of the scope of and reasons for the relationship. Last week's designation accuses the MOIS of "facilitat[ing] the movement of al Qa'ida operatives in Iran and provid[ing] them with documents, identification cards, and passports." It continues: "MOIS also provided money and weapons to al Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), a terrorist group designated under E.O. 13224, and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives." Earlier designations have highlighted specific tactical links between al Qaeda and Iran, but the connection goes back years.
Iran's ties to terrorists are undisputed, but its closest relationships are with groups, like the Lebanese Hezbollah, that are composed of Shiite Muslims who embrace Iran's revolutionary Shiism and feel an affinity toward Tehran as the leader of the Shiite world. Al Qaeda, of course, rejects both. Yet while Iran's heated rhetoric leads many analysts to focus on its revolutionary ideology, strategic thinking often dominates the clerical regime's policies toward terrorist groups.
Iran is often more pragmatic than many think. It backed terrorist and militant groups against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan, and other enemies even though it had little in common with some of its proxies. In the 1990s, Iran began to forge strong relationships to Palestinian Islamist groups, particularly Palestinian Islamic Jihad but also, to a lesser degree, Hamas. Such relationships weakened Iran's adversary, Israel, and undermined the U.S.-led effort to isolate Iran. They also served the broader Iranian goal of bridging the Shiite-Sunni divide to build a pan-Islamic, anti-American front. (In a recent Friday sermon, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hinted at this ecumenical approach. "We will continue to support any nation or group that fights or confronts the Zionist regime, and we are not afraid of saying this," he said.